Friday, November 30, 2007

Housing Slump's Third Year to Be `Deepest' Since WWII (Update1)

By Dan Levy and Brian Louis

Nov. 30 (Bloomberg) -- As the U.S. housing slump enters its third year, there is no sign of dawn in the darkness that is paralyzing home building, home buying and home lending.

Standard & Poor's 15-member Supercomposite Homebuilding Index tumbled 62 percent this year as of yesterday, the largest drop since the benchmark was started in 1995. The companies have lost about $35 billion of market value.

The outlook is bleak with new home sales projected to fall 13 percent in 2008, according to estimates from the National Association of Realtors in Chicago, even as interest rates drop. Losses at Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the two biggest U.S. providers of mortgage financing, may restrict the availability of home loans, and chief executive officers at D.R. Horton Inc. and Centex Corp. expect another tough year.

``This looks like it's going to be the deepest correction of any housing correction since World War II, and the question really is, `What's the duration, how long will it be?''' Centex CEO Timothy Eller said at a JPMorgan Chase & Co. conference in Las Vegas on Nov. 27.

The decline in the S&P homebuilding index has pushed the measure to March 2003 levels, with companies including Centex and Pulte Homes Inc. falling more than 65 percent in composite trading on the New York Stock Exchange.

Credit Protection Costs

Total new home sales peaked in July 2005 and have declined for 19 of the last 28 months through October, according to Commerce Department data. Existing home sales peaked in September 2005. The median price for a new home dropped 13 percent in October, the most since 1970, and the annual sales rate for new homes in September was the lowest in almost 12 years.

Bond investors have sought more protection against homebuilders defaulting on debt as revenue and cash flow have declined. Credit protection costs reached 12-month highs in the week ended Nov. 21 for Miami-based Lennar Corp., Bloomfield Hills, Michigan-based Pulte, Dallas-based Centex and Fort Worth, Texas-based D.R. Horton, the four largest U.S. builders by revenue; as well as Calabasas, California-based Ryland Group Inc., a builder in 28 U.S. markets, and Hovnanian Enterprises Inc. of Red Bank, New Jersey, the biggest builder in that state.

`Bankruptcy Risks'

Credit default swap spreads climbed last week by as much as 335 basis points for builders with investment-grade ratings and by an average 209 basis points for those with junk ratings, according to CreditSights Inc., a New York-based research firm. Credit default swaps are contracts to protect bondholders against default. An increase indicates worsening perceptions for credit quality.

``If we talked two weeks ago, I'd say there wasn't much more downside, but the market is acting like there's still a lot more to go,'' said James Wilson, an analyst who follows home builders at San Francisco-based JMP Securities LLC.

Beazer Homes USA Inc., the Atlanta-based homebuilder under investigation by the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, and Hovnanian are ``bankruptcy risks,'' Wilson said. Those companies have too much debt and are exposed to slumping housing markets in Florida and Michigan, Indiana and Ohio, he said.

Beazer CEO Ian McCarthy said at this week's conference in Las Vegas that 2008 ``is going to be another tough year.'' The company has a secured credit line of $500 million, he said.

``The company is really looking to make sure its balance sheet and its credit position is strong as we go through this tough time,'' McCarthy said. The company also has agreements ``with our bankers and with our secured credit lenders'' that will ``put us in good stead going forward.''

Worse 2008?

Hovnanian CEO Ara Hovnanian said at the JPMorgan conference that the company has a ``better financial structure than we've ever had.'' Hovnanian's bonds don't start coming due until 2010 and 2012, ``giving us plenty of breathing room,'' he said.

``We're experienced operators, been around for almost 50 years,'' Hovnanian said. ``We will clearly persevere and thrive in the eventual upturn as we have after every cycle.''

Many homebuilding executives at the conference said they expect the slump to last through 2008.

Next year ``is going to be worse than '07 for us and for the industry in general,'' said Donald Tomnitz, D.R. Horton's CEO.

At least three closely held companies filed for bankruptcy protection in the past month, including Fort Lauderdale, Florida-based Levitt and Sons LLC, the 1949 pioneer of planned suburbs with Levittown on New York's Long Island. Tousa Inc. of Hollywood, Florida, which has lost 99 percent of its stock market value this year, said this month it was considering filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection.

Tousa's Strategy

Tousa acquired 22,000 home sites in Florida through a joint venture in August 2005, when the housing market was close to its peak. Florida accounted for five of the top 25 U.S. metropolitan areas with the highest foreclosure rates this year through Sept. 30, according to RealtyTrac Inc. The Irvine, California-based seller of foreclosure data has a database of more than 1 million U.S. properties.

The New York Stock Exchange suspended trading in Tousa on Nov. 19 because the average closing price was less than $1 for 30 straight trading days. Tousa last traded at 8 cents, down from a seven-year high of $30 in August 2005.

Standard Pacific Corp., based in Irvine, California, is the worst performer in the S&P homebuilding index, dropping 89 percent. Home sales in California, the company's largest source of revenue, fell 40 percent and median prices for existing homes slid 9.9 percent in October, data compiled by the California Association of Realtors show.

Housing Glut

A housing rebound is unlikely, as about 1 million adjustable loans made to subprime borrowers, those with weak or incomplete credit histories, are scheduled to reset at a higher rate in 2008, according to RealtyTrac.

That may put many homeowners at risk of foreclosure and lower the value of neighboring houses, said Rick Sharga, vice president of marketing at RealtyTrac. About 1.3 million subprime mortgages will be in foreclosure by September 2009, including actions already under way, according to estimates from New York- based analysts at Credit Suisse Group.

``There is just no quick fix, including further rate cuts, to stabilize the current weakness in the housing market,'' said CreditSights analysts Frank Lee and Sarah Rowin in a Nov. 23 report to clients.

Discounted Prices

Builders must contend with a glut of existing homes on the market. There's an almost 11-month supply of unsold existing homes, the highest in more than eight years, according to data from the National Association of Realtors.

The decline in the market for existing homes is lagging ``far behind'' the new home market, and resale prices have only started to erode, said Citigroup Inc. analyst Stephen Kim in a Nov. 23 report.

``We have never before seen how a belated dropoff in existing home prices will affect already discounted prices for new homes, but it is difficult to be optimistic here,'' Kim wrote.

Citigroup cut its rating on Lennar, Centex, Los Angeles- based KB Home, D.R. Horton, Ryland, Pulte and Standard Pacific to ``hold'' from ``buy.'' Meritage Homes Corp. in Scottsdale, Arizona, was reduced to ``sell'' from ``hold.''

Cash flow will assume even greater importance as homebuilders owe $875 million in debt payments in 2008 and then about $1.6 billion in 2009 and 2010, data compiled by CreditSights show.

`Hard Year'

Potential legal costs also may hurt the builders, said Lee of CreditSights. D.R. Horton, Hovnanian and Reston, Virginia- based NVR Inc. are being sued by consumers who said they were coerced into taking loans from the company's mortgage units. The top 10 builders made $2.1 billion from providing financial services such as mortgages and title insurance last year, according to data compiled by UBS AG.

Investigations of builders may also weigh on the companies. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development is examining whether builders received kickbacks when selling property. Pulte and KB Home are among six homebuilders that agreed last month to pay a total of $1.4 million to settle federal probes into whether they accepted rebates from insurers for referrals when selling homes.

New York, Ohio and at least six other states are investigating the mortgage industry, including whether appraisers, mortgage brokers and lenders may have inflated home values. Resolving the complaints ``could run into the millions or billions'' of dollars, CreditSights's Lee said.

``There will be some bankruptcies, some consolidations, some private equity plays,'' said Kenneth Rosen, chairman of the University of California's Fisher School of Real Estate and Urban Economics in Berkeley. ``It's going to be another hard year.''

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